literacy is power

7 September 2009

I teach creative writing courses in a continuing education department of a college. Most would consider these to be “special interest” courses, which people take for enjoyment. And that’s great – one of the reasons I teach these courses is because I enjoy it.

But there is another really big reason I do it. It’s because I believe that lifelong learning is a fundamental right of every human being, and that lifelong learning makes better citizens, communities and countries. I teach courses because I want to help people achieve that feeling of satisfaction and power I get when I expand my own knowledge. When a learner says to me “I’ve changed because of this course” the sense of gratification I feel in having engendered, just a little, someone’s personal growth and the power they feel at having told a story is enormous.

Literacy DayBut adult learning is so much more than that which I promote in my own little world. According to UNESCO, one in five adults is not literate. Two-thirds of those adults are women. 75 million children on this planet are not in school.

You want to talk about how literacy is about personal empowerment and human development? Then think about what it means that that 776 million adults lack minimum literacy. It means that 776 million people lack the skills necessary to overcome poverty. 776 million people lack access to information about how to take care of themselves and their children, about how to find help and support, how to achieve gender equality and how to carry out sustainable development so they can support themselves and their communities.

Literate parents raise literate children. People who are literate participate more in their communities and they make their voices heard through actions – like voting. And just as literacy is a tool of personal empowerment and human development – illiteracy is a tool of oppression and domination. We all know the Taliban work hard to oppress and dominate by withholding education. It’s not a new idea – it’s been going on for centuries, and continues around the globe.

Tomorrow is International Literacy Day. Stop for a few minutes and think about what literacy means in your world. What your access to education and information affords you and those around you. Think about what it means as you sit at that computer, accessing and contributing to the world of ideas and information on the World Wide Web.

Think about the sheer courage that girl in Afghanistan must drum up just to go to school in the morning because she probably heard stories about angry dudes throwing acid the faces of girls who go to school. Think about your laid-off neighbour who is suddenly faced with navigating the “information society” for a job his high school education didn’t equip him for all those decades ago. Think about your new neighbour who has escaped an oppressive regime but lacks the language skills to read a simple street sign, a carton of milk, a prescription bottle or the newspaper.

And maybe instead of buying coffee at Starbucks this week, give that ten bucks to an organization like this one or this one or this one or this one or one in your community, and imagine the possibilities for a world in which 776 million people don’t lack basic literacy skills and have a chance to rise above poverty and oppression. Literacy is power. Share the power.


kids see lots if you ask me

4 September 2009

A few weeks ago I started reading May Sarton’s journal, “The House by the Sea.”  And then I stopped because work happened.  Today I picked her up again today and came across this passage:

“I do not believe that keeping a journal is for the young.  There is always the danger of bending over oneself like Narcissus and drowning in self indulgence.  If a journal is to have any value either for the writer or any potential reader, the writer must be able to be objective about what he [sic] experiences on the pulse.  For the whole point of a journal is this seizing events on the wing.  Yet the substance will come not from narration but from the examination of experience, and an attempt, at least, to reduce it to essence.  Secondly – and this is curious – what delights the reader in a journal is often minute particulars.  Very few young people observe anything except themselves very closely.  Then the context – by that I mean all that one brings to an experience of reading and thinking and feeling – is apt to be thin for the young.  And to get to the nub, I guess what I am suggesting is that rarely is there enough of a self there.”

I heartily agree and heartily disagree with Sarton’s ideas.  Yes, I too believe the job of the journal is not merely that of a vehicle for self absorption.  Its job is to facilitate seeing – both behind and beyond the end of one’s nose.  I truly believe that if you spend time writing what YOU see, you become more compassionate and appreciative of the world you find.  I believe, as Sarton does, the journal is for “siezing events on the wing” and in doing so, we look for the essence and thus the beauty in experience.

I don’t share, however, her idea that the young are not capable of seeing beyond the ends of their collective noses.  I have encouraged my own daughters to journal from the time they could express themselves with a pen, and I have done same with my nieces and nephews.  And each one of them exhibits a large and original self as it exists within the big ol’ world.  And each one of them finds appreciation in those “minute particulars” as Sarton calls them. 

Yes – I do believe that with each year on the planet we grow more wise and more appreciative of the small gifts.  But the gifts are not just available to the mature.  Everyone’s story has value – and every child and young person is as deep as a well if we ask them to be. 

And we would all be well served to remind ourselves of the clarity of vision we once had – which would only strengthen the depth of the knowledge and joy we continue to collect as we walk along this life’s journey.  Sure – many youth and young adults are focused on the self.  That’s because they are looking hard to find that self!  Maybe it’s our job to foster that seeking rather than tell them there isn’t anything worth finding until they have been graced with the gift of years.  See, that’s the thing about years – each one builds on the last.  Each story is a chapter.  And the early chapters are setting the stage for all things new and innovative. 

Give a kid a journal today.  Invite them to “sieze those events on the wing” and search for the essence in each experience.  Because from my experience, they’re really good at it.

Expressive arts activities scare me.  Many of them are derived from psychotherapeutic practices, and those scare the hell out of me.  There are certain cans of worms that are just begging to be opened, and I figure if I work with expressive arts activities enough, those cans of worms are eventually going to be opened.  As they should I suppose. 

People come to expressive arts for lots of different reasons.  Some people want to enrich their counselling, healthcare or teaching practices.  Others think the arts are a great basis for exploring and expressing the self.  And others just want to play and develop the creative process.  Some just have things to say, and need to find ways to say them.  I want to help people tell their stories, and the expressive arts world offers an abundance of fun and rewarding strategies for enhancing creativity and expression.

To help others utilize expressive arts, for whatever reason, you have to do some of the therapeutic stuff, the internal explorations.  For me, that’s always a personal challenge, particularly doing that out loud.  In front of people.  I’m an avoider – naturally inclined to leave those cans of worms closed.  And I’m reserved.  I feel quite comfortable expressing myself in writing.  It’s safe.  It’s solitary.  As for the other arts – not so comfortable. 

Last week I did some of that work with uncharacteristic courage.  I danced without inhibition.  I did theatre games without fear.  I told stories aloud and be damned my sieve-like memory and drifty focus. 

I felt good.  I wasn’t tackling nagging cans of worms like some were.  I was just doing.  Expressing in ways that are usually most uncomfortable for me but this time they weren’t and it felt really good.   

And then there was the sand tray. 

Sand tray (or sandplay therapy) is best known for its use by psychoanalysts and play therapists in creating a safe “world” in which to symbolically represent one’s internal self.  The client will choose from a variety of miniature figures and toys and create a scene or world in a tray of sand.  The client and/or the therapist will then interpret what is symbolically represented in the tray.  Expressive arts practitioners utilize sand tray for freeing and creating stories, and all the interpreting is left to the person making the world.  The expressive arts practitioner may ask questions designed to open or highlight certain elements and/or characters and/or objects in the story.

I’m usually one of the ones who are happy to let others take the “action” role in these types of activities, but when it came time to experiment with the sand tray, I jumped in and said, “this stuff scares me, so I should do it.”  I approached the activity with what I thought was a blank slate.  I wanted to assemble and place the figures and toys without thought, and come up with a story completely off the cuff, and enjoy playing with my imagination and exercise my [very limited] improv muscles. 

As it happened, there was nothing ridiculous about the world I created in the sand tray.  The themes are not new.  I told an old story of searching.  Looking for home.  Searching for place, and space and solidness and not finding it.

What’s new is the interpretation.  It’s a story is about mindfulness. Being mindful of the things that are driving the search, and recognizing the places you’ve already been so you aren’t walking in circles.  It’s not a story about the end, real or anticipated.  Really, there’s nothing futile in searching and not finding the pot of gold right away; there is nothing to be gained in trying to see the end before you get there.  As I wrote in a story years ago – it’s like jumping to the end of the book, when the story is right here, right now. 

Funny, that particular story is one that I told aloud last week.  I told that one because I know it, am familiar with it and I could then focus on the challenges of telling of it aloud.  That’s what I thought.  Uh oh. 

On we go, me and my cans of worms.  I think it’s time to get off the main road.


To learn more about sand tray, click here:

dancing for mitch

14 June 2009

There’s a scene that always really moves me in the movie Elizabethtown.  The scene is during Mitch’s memorial service and his wife Holly is on a stage, in Mitch’s world, far away from her world.  Holly is taking her turn to speak about Mitch to the reluctant audience that is Mitch’s family. The thing that is so moving is that she has her hackles up against the suspicious relatives when she walks into the room, but when she gets on the stage she gives them the whole honest truth about how she has been managing her grief.  About how Mitch’s death panicked her, and she felt the overwhelming need to accomplish and learn all the things she had never accomplished and learned while he was alive to share them with her. 

As she moves into a largely inappropriate comedy sketch (a result of her needing to learn how to laugh), she starts to break down the audience’s armour.  And by the time she sets the needle down on Mitch’s favourite song, Moon River, and begins to tap dance for Mitch, (another hastily learned thing), she finds loud support and applause.  Holly kicked away the hackles, and she was rewarded with love.

Once I took a writing class in which there was a young girl who overcame great personal fear just to tell her stories to us each week.  You could see that fear in her.  You could see her summoning inner resources even as she lingered for a moment looking in the window of the classroom before her hand would function against the door handle and open the door. 

Every one of her stories reflected her facing off against that wall with a determination that belied her masked exterior.  Her stories inspired us, and our reactions to her readings of them conveyed that.  But she didn’t finish the semester, and I remember wishing otherwise to my friend who was the facilitator.  “She’s just not ready” said my friend. 

There are lots of reasons why so many of us harbour the idea that risking honesty and truth will result in some sort of failure.  Maybe, as Elizabeth Gilbert suggests below, we could shift the responsibility of our expression to another force.  Our Mitch, our muse, or a higher power altogether.  And then maybe we can put it out there without those hackles that hold us back. The failure would not be ours to risk.

Last week, someone in my class took a personal risk and told a story.  That person reminded me of Holly.  Because like her, that person was rewarded with unbridled thanks and support. 

“We’re all in it together” said an old friend of mine recently.  Yeah, and that’s why we love to hear each others’ stories.  I really hope that young girl discovered that truth; that she’s found the gumption to shed those hackles.

One of the internal “snapshots” I carry around with me is the picture of me at around ten, in my grade five class with the other kids and our teacher, Mrs. Chavis, dancing to “Joy to the World” (Jeremiah was a Bullfrog).  We had a dance in our classroom for an hour or so every Friday afternoon.  Sometimes we square danced; sometimes we’d pick songs from the stacks of 45s some kids brought in.  The kids with the afros had the biggest and best stacks of records, mostly Motown; most of us just had a few.  But our favourite song to dance to was Jeremiah was a Bullfrog.

Vivian Chavis approached learning with a strong combination of creativity and discipline.  She was no softie – nobody got away with nonsense in her class.  But she also had a well placed sense of humour, and us kids knew it.  To this day I can hear her hearty, high pitched, musical laugh. 

Mrs. Chavis taught us to be aware, through strict daily attention to current events and history.  Four years later on my first day of high school, I was the only person in my history class who knew that Mao Tse Tung had recently died.  I was the only one who knew who Mao Tse Tung was, in fact, and I’m sure I must have sat there in that Grade 9 history class and thought of learning about the Chinese Cultural Revolution in Mrs. Chavis’s class and the big dragon “float” we made to parade around the school on Chinese New Year.

Mrs. Chavis always let us propose creative ways to express our learning.  Once, Helen, Patty and I created a “Game Show” to practice question drills, during which we tried to give one good natured kid a whipped cream pie in the face.  Another time we did a history project that we presented on a home-made television set, made out of a box and a roll of brown paper.  Along with dancing, we had weekly choir singing, where we sang Harry Belafonte songs and old African American spirituals. 

Mrs. Chavis, nearing retirement, had hair that was fast turning white, offset with thick, black rimmed glasses.  She wore heavy, plain polyester dresses every day.  With those she wore sensible walking shoes and thick, taupe coloured nylons, which didn’t exactly match her African American skin.  My Mom, who was also a teacher at our school, said she would go into Mrs. Chavis’s classroom after school and find her colleague reclined in her chair with her feet up on her desk, laughing about some grade five related fiasco or other.  My Mom said she begged her not to retire until my youngest sister reached Grade 5 and could have her as a teacher.  Jane did end up having her, and Mrs. Chavis retired not long after that.  She died only a few years after that.  My Mom who later learned of the health problems Mrs. Chavis was having at that time, always felt guilty for begging her to stay on. 

Vivian Chavis gave me many things; most importantly my ability to think and learn creatively.  30 years later she arose in my own studies in education, and I looked to her as a model when writing my own teaching philosophy.  She is no doubt behind my continued desire to know, and my lifelong interest in news and current events.  She got me interested in the big beautiful world, and what history teaches us. 

And she forever lives on in that internal snapshot of the sixty-something, grey haired, polyester clad lady with a big laugh dancing to Jeremiah was a Bullfrog with a bunch of ten year olds in a classroom on a Friday afternoon.

This morning on the bus I’m reading one of the several books on personal writing and memoir I’m carrying around for inspiration in planning lessons for my class.  A kid in his late teens sits next to me – he’s not unlike one you typically see on that bus route bordering Scarborough, dressed in a bright red basketball shirt, matching his hat and expensive looking runners, and an i-pod in the pocket of his baggy jeans which is likely filled with hip hop and rap music. 

I can tell he’s reading the pages of my book, and eventually he asks me in a soft spoken voice what kind of “exercises” the book is referring to.  I tell him it’s a book about creative writing, and then I tell him about this particular kind of writing.  And then I tell him about my class, and the kinds of things we do in it and why.  He likes the idea that doing creative play and exercises can help one to get the story down onto the page, and he’s impressed that one of my students this semester is 92 years old and taking classes.

After a short while he gets up to leave and says it was nice talking to me.  I return with same, and watch him walk down the street, appreciating his curious and open mind.  I wonder if he’s had the slightest inspiration to tell a story.  I hope so.  That would be really cool.

I’ve been really busy with classes – one ending, with all the stories and feedback and grading that entails, and two starting – one of which is brand new.  The new class is writing memoir and family history stories, and it’s one I’ve been trying to get the college to let me teach since I started with them five years ago.  It’s the one I had in mind when I first decided to teach creative writing.   One of the strategies I’m exploring a lot in my lesson planning is how to mine our memories for meaningful stories.

It was a class in personal writing that set me on this road; where I decided that I absolutely had to help people tell their stories.  Ever since then, I’ve been thinking about the seemingly random images that reside in our memories.  The famous Cesare Pavese quote, “We don’t remember days, we remember moments,” sums it up.  When you look back upon your life, I’m betting that you will look back upon a series of moments, or “snapshots” as I call them.  One of the authors I’m reading on the topic right now calls them “shimmering images.” 

Some of those snapshots are aggressive – bellying up to the bar, front and centre of the mind, again and again like an old regular.  Then there are others that come up suddenly, seemingly unprovoked, leaving you wondering where they came from.  And others you go looking for – as you talk with old friends, or tell your kids a story from your past, or dig out that old Rod Stewart record on a rainy day. 

I’m intrigued by these inner snapshots; I think they reside in our memories for a reason.  I think we’re supposed to remember them.  And as such, I think they’re ideal inspiration for personal writers.  And that’s why I’m having my class mine them for inspiration this semester.  And why I plan to join right in, the results of which will likely be found here in this spot. 

What about YOUR snapshots?  Which ones are old hangers on?  Which ones have surprised you, as if jumping from around the hedge up ahead just when you didn’t expect it?  Like me, you may begin to collect them, as if on magical beads strung on a long silver chain, woven in and out of your consciousness.  Some are ugly and hard to look at and may need to be tucked away for another time.  However, nestled in and amongst the lovely ones, they are part of the whole story.